Friday, March 26, 2010

Food Writing: Della T. Lutes & Home Cooking

When it comes to Sunday dinner, no food writer can hold a candle to Della T. Lutes.  
"'Sunday dinner' turns my thoughts to that one which was almost standardized in the home of my childhood, and is very nearly so in my own:  an old-fashioned dinner of fricassee chicken, biscuits and gravy, mashed potatoes, boiled onions.  That was the kind of dinner most favored for the Sabbath day by my father and still favored by my own family.  I have never seen any reason for trying to improve upon it."
Della T. Lutes' The Country Kitchen  is s a unique example of food writing: part memoir, part history of 19th-century midwestern home cooking, interwoven with  recipes for your grandmother's or great-great grandmother's favorite biscuits and Irish stew.  First published in 1936, this comical, homey book is the predecessor of the charming food essay collections of Laurie Colwin, Home Cooking and More Home Cooking.  Although this is a bit uneven and not in the same class as Lutes' Millbrook, her small masterpiece, a hybrid-memoir about growing up in a small town in Michigan in the 19th century and a history of the town itself, aficionados of food writing will find it informative and entertaining.
Did you know that a fowl over one year old will have a richer flavor than a chicken?  That women of the 19th century slowly boiled their chicken before frying it "in a spider?" And don't let that butcher chop up your chicken. He'll make a mess of it and Lutes insist it's better to disjoint it yourself.  
She colorfully describes food-centered events like church suppers.  One of the most popular church events at churches without a hall was the box social.  Women cooked enough food for two people and packed it in a pretty box.  Men bid on the boxes at the church and then were obligated to eat with the cook, while the children helped themselves to an overflowing buffet. Lutes hilariously chronicles the occasion when her anti-social father reluctantly attended a box social and inadvertently bought a box prepared by the Lutes' trashy neighbor, Mrs. Covell. He was so repulsed by the "cold sausage, coated with lard," gray bread, pickles, and friedcakes that he immediately claimed he had to go home and milk the cow, apparently an easily decoded lie, and dragged his humiliated wife and Della away from their rare evening out.
Millbrook was my aunt's childhood favorite:  the book she sent to all of her nieces.   It occurs to me that I've never written about Millbrook:  I am obviously due for a reread and re-evaluation. 


Ellen said...

This reminds me very much of Elizabeth David. Have you come across her cookbook-recipe cultural life-style volumes. Jim uses them to cook with for real. Much easier to follow than Julia Childe. David is well-known for offering a presence and sense of English life abroad (southern France) and at home.

Someone else also just like this whom Jim has but is not as useful for real cooking. I can't remember the name just now -- also very English while the recipes are off-beat French.


Frisbee said...

I have heard the name, but have read nothing by Elizabeth David. I should have looked for her books at the book sale!

M. F. K. Fisher is a good food writer. She writes essays and memoirs about food and travel and I've enjoyed her writing about France. But I can't remember any recipes.

Food memoirs are fascinating. I make fast 15-minute vegetarian meals but very occasionally branch into more complicated recipes. The Julia Child movie inspired me but I haven't tried a single of her recipes this year oddly.